"The basic task of readers is similar to the task of a prospector. Just as the prospector picks away at the surface to discover the gold hidden underneath, readers dig away at the surface structure, searching for and demanding meaning."—Searfoss and Readence,
Helping Children Learn to Read
"A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end."—Henry David Thoreau
Comprehension of written material is inescapably intertwined with vocabulary. Word recognition, decoding, and spelling skills all help the student sort out the meaning of a sentence. But that's not all: words will take the reader far, but comprehension is about so much more. To become a successful reader, students must be able to comprehend the words they read within the context of the sentences containing those words; they must weave the meanings of individual words into the meaning of the sentence.
Say you were faced with the task of taking down a tent you'd never seen before (and you weren't around when it was put up). Certainly some tents are easy enough (as are some sentences), but what if it's one of those antique tents that someone else bought at a garage sale—meaning the instructions were lost years ago. All the pieces are there, your hands and brain are in working order, and you have the basic skills—as well as the opposable thumbs—to perform the task. But because the tent's complicated structure is not immediately apparent to you, you may have some difficulty figuring out how to take the tent apart and pack it up properly—unless you have had some training in tent design as well as some practice constructing and deconstructing various types of tent structures.
In similar fashion, sentence comprehension relies on the student's ability to decipher the structure of a sentence—the syntax. In addition, sentence comprehension depends on the student's ability to keep all the words in mind until the entire sentence has been processed; in other words, working memory skills. (Just as you need to remember how you took apart the first corner of the tent so you can take the other three apart, too!)
Let's take a look at syntax first.
from the Brain Connection library, May 2001